American allies in the Middle East pressure Biden to come up with strategy for containing Iran

During a visit to Washington earlier this month, Saudi Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman – the brother of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – told Biden’s senior national security officials that he was delighted that US-Saudi relations are getting back on track, sources familiar with the talks said.

‘The situation with Iran is getting very hot,’ a senior administration official said, referring to the country’s recent decision to dismantle some of its nuclear surveillance cameras and a series of Israeli covert and offensive operations within the borders of Iran. On Monday, three Iranian vessels harassed two US Navy vessels in a “dangerous and unprofessional manner” within 50 meters of US ships in the Strait of Hormuz, the navy said in a statement.

“That’s a big part of why we have to go on this trip – our allies want to know we’re serious about this,” the official added.

At this point, however, the prospects for a new deal “are dim at best,” US Iran envoy Rob Malley told Congress last month. And it remains unclear how the administration would hold off Iran’s non-nuclear missile and drone attacks if the deal is successful and sanctions are lifted.

An NSC spokesperson told CNN, “We are committed to consulting closely with our regional partners regarding U.S. policy on Iran, and in general terms, we support dialogue between countries in the region on security issues. and regional stability”.

Lawmakers, regional partners and allies have pushed the White House for more information, but the administration has been wary, fearing it could derail sensitive nuclear talks.

Sources familiar with the talks said the administration said it would keep economic pressure on Iran and step up enforcement of sanctions if a deal falls through. The United States has also worked to build a regional coalition against Iran, urging Gulf countries to integrate all their air and missile defense systems against Iranian attacks. The move is backed by US lawmakers from both parties but has yet to win support from all Gulf countries.

However, US officials do not believe that it is entirely up to Biden to constrain Iran and hope to hear from Middle Eastern partners during the president’s trip to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia next month on what they can do more to influence Iran. behavior, officials said.

Israel, meanwhile, seems increasingly willing to take matters into its own hands. The country’s intelligence apparatus has stepped up covert attacks on Iranian nuclear targets and scientists and leaves the United States largely in the dark about it, several current and former officials familiar with the intelligence told CNN.

The Gulf states are less worried than Israel about a nuclear weapon, and more about how sanctions relief from the nuclear deal could help fund Iran’s other nefarious activities.

“The Gulf wants to feel that America is on its side, but the biggest question mark right now is whether the United States can be counted on,” said Ali Shihabi, a Saudi agent close to Riyadh. which often represents the point of view of the government of that country. “Saudi Arabia wants the United States to get as involved as possible in constraining Iran, so this will be a discussion that will dominate the GCC-Biden meeting.”

The Biden administration is divided on the seriousness of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Some current and former officials familiar with US intelligence believe that Iran’s primary goal is sanctions relief and that its leaders are content to simply hold the threat of further nuclear development as leverage.

Others believe that Iran really wants to produce a nuclear weapon, because the country’s leaders have taken note of how North Korea and Russia, two nuclear-armed states, managed to avoid the direct Western interference such as invasion and regime change.

Malley told lawmakers last month that “nothing is ruled out” when it comes to ensuring Iran never gets a nuclear weapon, including military action. But he reiterated that the US position is that “the only real solution here is diplomatic.”

The NSC spokesperson reiterated this position. “We will remain committed to diplomacy as the best and most enduring way to address our concerns about Iran’s nuclear program,” the spokesperson said.

Climbing signs

US intelligence and military officials are watching closely for signs of escalation between Iran and Israel ahead of Biden’s trip to the region, as Israel appears to have stepped up targeted assassinations and other area operations gray in Iran in recent months.

Israel “(does not appear) to currently have a strategic plan to end Iranian nuclear weapon development,” said Jonathan Panikoff, head of the Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council and a former military officer. National Intelligence Deputy for the Middle East. to the National Intelligence Council. “He hopes that, through a series of tactical actions, he can keep the pressure on and continually delay Iranian progress.”

A US official and another source with knowledge of the intelligence confirmed to CNN that Israel was behind the assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards Colonel Sayad Khodayee in Tehran last month, as first reported. times the New York Times. The Israeli Embassy did not respond to requests for comment.

Two Iranian scientists were also killed in late May in what Iran has publicly described as deliberate poisoning by Israel. Also in late May, a drone strike on Iran’s Parchin military compound killed an Iranian engineer and another IRGC member suddenly fell from a balcony.

Israel does not inform the United States of its operations in advance and often never acknowledges its role, even in private. Biden administration officials, in turn, have taken a largely passive approach to Israel’s operations, several current and former officials familiar with discussions between the two countries told CNN, and did not directly ask Israel to put an end to it.

Still, while a conventional war between Iran and Israel remains unlikely, the possibility of a miscalculation that spirals out of control is higher than usual, officials said.

Iran has raised the alert levels of its aerospace defense forces in reaction to recent Israeli operations, an official said – something officials are watching as a possible indicator that Iran is preparing to retaliate.

“The more the Israelis push — especially if the Iranians decide the JCPOA is dead — the more the Iranians are going to push back,” Panikoff said.

Officials also fear that Iranian rhetoric is becoming more belligerent, as the Iranian government appears to have begun to link recent Israeli attacks to the survival of the regime.

Concerns over a potential Iranian escalation have fueled a broader diplomatic shift between Israel and the Gulf countries, leading to normalization deals with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

The shaky security environment has led Israel to push for Biden to travel to Saudi Arabia and meet the Saudi crown prince, multiple officials said, and Biden is expected to take an extraordinarily rare flight directly from Tel Aviv to Riyadh on Air Force One. while he was in the Middle East next month.

“Many of our partners are convinced that the United States’ Iran policy makes them inherently less secure,” said a congressional aide familiar with the deliberations. “And when you link this policy to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the restrictive arms sales, the lukewarm adherence to the Abraham Accords, the announced pivot to the Indo-Pacific – we have many partners ready to take things in hand.”

The aide added that some countries may also start looking for other partners, such as China, to deal with the Iranian threat.

Shihabi echoed that sentiment. “At the end of the day, American politics is very volatile,” he said. “And if the Kingdom and others have learned anything, it’s that they can’t put all their chips on the United States.”

This story has been updated with additional reaction.

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